Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 6/7/1998
"Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in he flesh, who are called "Uncircumcision" by the so-called "Circumcision" which is performed in the flesh by human hands--remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world."
The Apostle Paul was a theologian of the most brilliant profundity, and one of the reasons he achieved such depth is that he was focused on one thing: the wonder and glory of Salvation by Grace in Jesus Christ. It is amazing how often he keeps saying the same thing, yet with such richness of insight that it seems perpetually fresh and new and you are hardly aware of the repetition. Such is our experience in reading the second half of Ephesians chp. 2. 2:1-10 involves the contrast between what we were in sin and what we are in Christ: dead, made alive. Now 2:11-12 also deals with the contrast between what we were in sin and what we are in Christ, but this time from another perspective: we were far off, but now we are made night. We were excluded, but now we are reconciled. We were strangers, but now we are united together in the one Body through which God will achieve all his purposes for the cosmos.
To build the Church, this great Temple of living stones to the glory of Jesus Christ, God had first to make the stones alive by atoning for, forgiving, and cleansing their sin (2:1-10). Now the second step is to put those stones in place, to bring them together in the structure (2:11-22). In explaining that work, Paul once again reminds us of our condition before the work was done. Essentially, we were separate from Christ, i.e., without the Messiah.
"You were separate from Christ" is structurally the main statement; the others which follow elaborate what you are without when you are without Christ. As always for Paul, Christ himself is the key, the central focus. In him is every spiritual blessing; outside of him there is every curse and deprivation. In him there is hope, purpose, meaning, fulfillment; outside of him there is despair, futility, absurdity, frustration. In him is life; outside of him is death. In him is salvation; outside of him is destruction. In him is acceptance; outside of him is rejection. In him is Heaven; outside of him is Hell. He is the One for whom and through whom the whole Temple is being built; He is the meaning of the whole. And therefore, the worst tragedy that can befall a human being, the most pathetic condition which can benight him, the saddest end to which any man can come is to be without Christ. Specifically, to be without Christ is to be adrift in the world without community, identity, hope, and ultimately without God. This is to be lost indeed.
We as human beings need community; we were created for relationships, both with God and with each other. We were designed to be social animals, to the extent that even in the Garden, enjoying perfect fellowship with our Maker, he observed that "It is not good for the man to be alone." Many people first notice this when separated from the one they love. Suddenly, no experience seems worth having unless it can be shared with that particular partner. Most of us spend our lives looking for such relationship and then watching sin, the basic selfishness of our own natures, destroy them. Therefore the basic condition of life for most human beings, as pervasive and unremarkable as the air they breathe, is loneliness.
God's provision for this need, God's provision of Community, might surprise you. With some excuse, given the text from Genesis we already quoted, you might think it is the family. And in a sense it is. But that was only a temporary expedient. The ultimate solution, the one designed to last not just through time but also through eternity, is the Church. It is not that no one ever has a good marriage or a lasting friendship. Even non-Christians by common grace sometimes do; but they have no basis for these relationships. Even the friendships of Believers are fragile, and will end (in their current form) with death. The bottom line for the survivor is still loss and loneliness.
But God is creating a community with a sure foundation, one which will last forever: and that is the Church. Our other satisfying relationships will also last forever in so far as, and only in so far as, they are also part of this one. It is no accident that we speak of having a "home church" or a "church family." For the church will outlast even the family! In heaven we neither marry nor are given in marriage. Those earthly familial relationships will be transcended. But we will still be part of the Church, the Body of Christ, and as such citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem. We are joined to this Body through our unity with its Head. And therefore, without Christ there is no true and lasting community. We may achieve it for awhile, but apart from him the end thereof is death, loneliness--Hell.
It was God's covenant with Abraham that set him apart from all other men and gave him a purpose and an identity (Gen. 12:1-3). He and his descendants would henceforth find their identity in relationship to their God and their purpose: they were his chosen people, through whom every family on the face of the earth should be blessed. Their covenant with God was, in other words, the BASIS of their community, of their relationships with him and with each other, and hence of their identity; for we find our identity, our sense of self, in relationship to the communities of which we are a part. I am Don, son of Thomas, servant of Christ, under-shepherd of his flock, friend of so-&-so and so-&-so, sworn enemy of pietistic anti-intellectualism masquerading as New-Testament spirituality wherever I find it, etc., etc., etc. Whether in blood-ties, unity, alliance, fealty, opposition, or indifference, it is the complex web of all these relationships to the various interlacing sets of communities to which I am related that is the sum total of who I am, and it is by the process of discovering, pursuing, fleeing, and transforming these relationships that I discover that identity. This is inescapable.
The importance of the New Covenant therefore is that, just like the Old before it, it defines who we are in Christ and thus gives us the only firm and stable basis for both lasting community and fulfilling identity. Israel's purpose was to bring the Messiah into the world; the Church's purpose is to take him into the world as the answer to its search for meaning, purpose, and community, and then to simply exist for all of eternity as the evidence and fruit of his mercy, glory, and grace. Therefore the New Covenant gives us not only eternal life but a reason sufficient to justify living that long. To inherit the Covenant of Promise is not only to be blessed but to be a blessing--to be an integral part of God's great work of salvation for the sake of which the whole world was created. Therefore, to be without Christ is to be a stranger to the Covenant, to be adrift in the world without meaning, purpose or identity. It is to be eternally bereft of the knowledge of who you are.
To be set loose in the world with no lasting basis for community and therefore with nothing to live for beyond our own self gratification is indeed to be adrift without hope. Without Christ, Man does not have these things. And without Christ, where is he going to get them? There is no other source of them, no other basis for them, that is not a dead end, a horrible trap, a lie, destined to disappoint us and leave us eternally unfulfilled. It is a sound and reliable rule: Without Christ, the more honest and intelligent a human being is, the less hopeful will be his philosophy. Franz Kafka said, "The conveyor belt of life carries you on, no one knows where. One is more of an object, a thing, than a living creature." Bertrand Russell said that "The human race has survived owing to its own inefficiency [at being able to destroy itself]; but that inefficiency is now diminishing, and therefore the race is threatened with destruction." Logical Positivism teaches that objective truth is to be found only in mathematics and empirical science, never in values, meaning, or purpose; and it was in the light of that teaching that Wittgenstein declared, "Whereof we cannot speak, we must be silent." And now Post-Modernism does not even find objective truth in math or science. The Buddhist asks, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" It is the sound of the only answers that modern philosophy has for the questions of love and significance: the sounds of Wittgenstein's silence.
Hello darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk to you again About a vision softly creeping That left its seeds while I was sleeping, And the vision that was planted in my brain Still remains Within the sounds of silence. Late at night I walked alone Down the dusty cobblestones. Beneath the halo of an 8th Street lamp I turned my collar to the cold and damp When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light That split the night, And touched the sounds of silence. Beneath the naked light I saw Ten thousand people, maybe more: People talking without speaking; People hearing without listening; People writing songs that voices never shared-- No one dared Disturb the sounds of silence. "Fools," said I, "You do not know Silence like a cancer grows! Hear my words that I might teach you; Take my hands that I might reach you!" But my words like silent raindrops fell And echoed In a well Of silence . . . . (Paul Simon)
Truly, to be without Christ is to be adrift in a world without hope. It is the darkest darkness. There is no light at the end of the tunnel; there is not even any tunnel. There is only an impenetrable brick wall of futility.
The final summary of all these deprivations is the chilling conclusion: to be without Christ is to be without God in the world. "No man," he said, "comes to the Father but by me." He is the ultimate Source of all goodness, truth, and beauty. And therefore to be cut off from him by our sins is indeed to be without community, without identity and purpose, without hope. That is what it means to be without God in the world.
Why does Paul begin again by reminding us of where we were without Christ? Because he wants us to appreciate what great things God has done for us! When he exhorts you to "walk worthily of your calling," he knows you will need as the spring of your motivation a gratitude as great as the grandeur of the salvation God has wrought in Jesus Christ. It is also to remind us of where other people are now without Christ: they are "separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world." We must have compassion for them and tell them that, though they are far off from these things now, even so they can be made nigh by the blood of Christ. But of that we shall speak next week.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams